The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz is the eye-witness testimony of solider Denis Avey. Captured in Libya and sent to the camp E715, it neighboured the concentration camp Auschwitz III, Buna-Monowitz. There he claims to have switched places with a Dutch Jewish inmate and stayed within the concentration camp for a night on two separate occasions. Avey’s account boasts a voyage of an out-spoken, laddish soldier, drawn into the war by the promise of adventure, eventually turned into an emotionally-repressed and fearful individual. While many books have been written by survivors of the Holocaust, this book explores the man who risked his own well-being on a task which was spurred by his need to bear witness to what events were unfolding within Germany’s secret camps.
Starting at the beginning, his trip to meet the Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown, was written with rare humour that is not present later in the book, for obvious reasons. Half of the book is focused on his time in the army; the atmosphere described seems to be one of boredom and comradery. We read about his friendship with a boy from back home who was later killed in an attack by the enemy and the relationship Avey had experienced with the boy’s sister. From this account, we begin to read about a young solider, not one to hold back his opinions unless expressed by an authority figure. At first, I found myself becoming bored of reading his life back home and his experiences within the army. Like many, I just wanted to read ahead to when he was imprisoned and when he swapped places and went into Auschwitz III. It was what the title of the book said and solely, the only reason I bought the book. However, when you read past this, you come to an understanding that Avey divulges into his past because he does not want to be remembered because of his experience in Auschwitz III. Like many accounts that I have read such as Barbara Stimler in ‘Memories of Auschwitz’ (2005), the survivors of the Holocaust do not want to be viewed simply for their time in the various camps around Europe. When reviewing several accounts, it becomes clear that part of their identity was stolen when they were imprisoned. Before they were arrested, they were people. Anne Frank’s Diary (1947) has become an international bestseller and translated into many languages, not just because it was a girl who died in the Holocaust. It is because it is an account of a thirteen year-old who enjoyed her life and had friends and family before she died. I personally believe that many survivors of the Holocaust did not want to speak of their experiences initially because of the part of their identity destroyed during World War II. They risked being viewed simply as prisoners, not people. This seems to be a part of Avey’s account. He admits that he was different after the war and that what he saw became a burden which shaped his identity, an identity which was so strong and defined before the war.
The main question surrounding the book, from the moment you pick it up in a shop, is why. Why would a man willingly switched places with an inmate of a concentration camp when he was protected in the E715 as prisoner of war? Adhering to Roy Peter Clark’s ‘Writing Tools’ (2006), tool 31, “Build your work around a main question”, the question of why powers the incentive to continue reading the book. From the basic knowledge of Auschwitz commonly known among readers of this genre, we know the conditions, the cruelty, and the starvation. It seems unfathomable. This continuous question reveals a lot about Avey’s character. In the book, he expresses his need to bear witness, knowing that little or no civilians knew of the camp’s existence. He explains that the mundane tasks day after day left people to their own thoughts. He was witnessing the cruelty and the inhumanity and wanted to put “one over” on the enemy. The answer to this question is explained much simply during an interview with Rob Bloomby, available on youtube.com. He cited Albert Einstein. “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” The wish to know creates an irony while reading the book. We read on to understand and answer the main question, while the answer to the question is the need to know.
The writing style within the book is one which you would expect from a professional non-fiction writer. Intentional or non-intentional it displays a conveyance of meaning which is subtle yet vivid. The distance between Avey and the words is apparent of a man who is reliving the worst experience in his life. There is to-the-point writing which doesn’t try to hide what he saw. “With the cadavers loaded, their carriers rejoined the ranks. I was supported by adrenaline but emotionally I was closed down. My defence mechanisms were in play. I didn’t have to think, I just had to do. Too much thought would dull my purpose and bring danger. If you want to speak a language fluently, you have to think in that language and so it was with me, there, in amongst the broken shadow people. I had to accept what was happening to them as they did. I had to think and act as they did.” (2011:138). Describing the inmates of the concentration camp as “broken shadow people” brings out a strong vivid description in just those three words. With books like this, there is no need to describe in detail what the people looked like. Pictures are known around the world and resources on the internet have made these details widely available. It is not just a description of physical appearance but one on their mental wellbeing, crushed by labour and loss. I have found while reading the accounts of Holocaust survivors, the ones which evoke the strongest emotion are the one which do not include specific details. No details were known to them at the time and there is no reason why the book should be any different. A survivor of Dachau, psychologist Viktor E. Frankl presents his account with specific details in the book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute from the Holocaust’ (1959). He mentions how many people were in the camp, how many died on the way to the camps and specifically how much food they were given per day. While is account is laden with relevant facts, it detracts from the emotional experience. In an interview with Dr. Janina Parafjanowicz, a survivor of Auschwitz, she does not disclose the number of people in the camp; she simply draws on her own experiences and what it was like for her, being a child of the Holocaust. She demonstrates straight forward thinking to the broad questions which are asked to. “2. What impact did Auschwitz have on your life? “Ha! What can you say to that?”. These kinds of answers reveal more character than if she gave a straight forward answer.
Another skill present in Avey’s writing is his ability to end each chapter on a moral cliffhanger. It inclines the reader to continue as he usually ends the chapter with a poignant wondering or expression or simply makes you feel a moral obligation to read on as he explains the suffering he has ensued. An example of this is the end of chapter 3. “He was the only man I killed with my bare hands, but if affected me all right, that one. You never forget it, never. A memory is lodged in the mind but a feeling inhabits the whole body. And I have carried the feeling of that night with me for the last seventy years.” (Avey: 42) Avey often chooses a parallel writing style as a reflection of the memories he suffered after Auschwitz III. He seems to allow little space for the significant and personal moments, such as meeting his future wife, reflecting how the memory of war continues to haunt him. Including the aftermath of Auschwitz is an important element to the book. It shouldn’t just end at when the prisoners and the country were liberated. Avey’s account draws in the impact Auschwitz III had. The straight-forward answer is that Avey was affected mentally for the rest of his life. Being liberated was not the end of his story. The experience shaped his identity. A similar account is Barbara Stimler, an inmate of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the short piece for the Guardian article, ‘Memories of Auschwitz’ there are details of how she struggled in everyday life after liberation. “She had a nervous breakdown in 1956, a year after her younger son was born; she had her tattoo removed on the advice of her psychiatrist; she rarely talked about her experiences, not even to her husband.” (2005). This reluctance to share the experience seems to be a common element within stories from the Holocaust.
In terms of themes and controversy, the theme of anger and agitation is one which is constantly present within the book. Avey spent years in the E715 camp, seeing brutality and being unable to stop it. This has festered inside as aggression and helplessness. The only way to save yourself was to repress these emotions, no matter how brutal. “I nearly vomited with shock and frustrated rage. Even at that distant I knew the child would have been killed. That horrific scene wiped out any relief of getting out of the camp for a day. The train arrived for us and we climbed on. I couldn’t speak. We were used to seeing cruelty to adults but the killing of a baby in a mother’s arms was unspeakable.”(Avey: 159). This particular extract brings together the themes of cruelty, dishonour and anger. As the content matter is one of devastation, the feeling of anger helps bring one close to their emotions. These types of graphic scenes seem to shape and better explain Avey’s character. In comparison with Viktor E. Frankl’s book, the themes of constant desperation and survival are common within the two books. Avey’s explains that he had been at numerous camps, comparing the living conditions which seemed to worsen from each camp to the next. The desperation is constant throughout these two books.
Whilst Avey has published his book, explaining his account of Auschwitz III, there is a high-rising debate about his accuracy and his credibility. There are articles which do not believe that he switched places with a Dutch Jewish inmate and do not believe his story to be reliable. The Daily Mail, reported 9th April 2011, called into question his account labelling it “pure fantasy”. They chose to discredit him and claimed that there were inconsistencies within the story Avey has written. They reported that they did not trust his credibility, his memory and his position within the army. Within the article, several prisoners of war and inmates of Auschwitz III claim that the swap could not have taken place. However, I have found there to be inconsistencies within the article itself. They provided a quote from Brian Bishop, a survivor of Dunkirk who claimed that it would have been impossible for Avey to participate in the swap unless they had help on both sides. If the book had been read, they would have seen that there was help on both sides. While there is much controversy, the one person who does not seem to be surprised is Avey himself. He admits that he did not want to share or write his story for sixty years because of the fear that no-one would believe him. As there is little testimony, the four inmates who helped the swap are presumably dead, there will be discrediting claims. However, to read the detail within the book and the video testimonies of Ernst Lobethal, a concentration camp prisoner who Avey helped during the war and survived, provide credibility and I do not believe his story to be false. These kinds of articles just prove the incredibility of people who have not read the book, or in the Daily Mail’s case, people who can’t read at all. Rob Bloomby, the co-writer of the book has expressed his faith in Avey’s memory and credibility and Lyn Smith, reported in the Jewish Chronicle by Simon Round (2011), believes that his account is true and that he is a credible source. They both believe that Avey’s personality proves that he is not a misinformed liar. I personally believe that this account is by a man who was unable to share this story for fear of Holocaust deniers and the emotions that would naturally be evoked by re-living the time he spent in the camp. Emotions that have been dormant for sixty years. Lyn Smith believes that the book signifies a man who has found his voice and realised that people want to listen to his story. In this sense, Viktor E. Frankl’s book better explains the psychological implications of emotions being repressed from a long period of time.
In conclusion, this book boasts many writing attributes which would be expected from a professional fiction piece. The writing style and description helps to visualise and realise the full implications of the effect Auschwitz must have had on those who survived. The account is written in a distant manner which helped to evoke silent emotion and silent tears. I believe this book to be an important account of the brutality and helplessness of the people trapped within prisoner of war camps and within the concentration camps. While there is debate on Denis Avey’s book, I have watched the interviews and read the book and believe him to be a reserved, professional man whose character speaks volumes. This piece of creative non-fiction is one which I would highly recommend to those interested in the truth and the search for the truth. Avey’s brutal honesty and his heroism must be commended and admired. The mix of personal stories from his past and harrowingly distant experiences during the war determines the man’s character. This book is positioned around the question of why he broke into the camp and answers it in a subtle way, the need to know and bear witness. This book has the powerful imagery to make one cry and make one happy for Avey’s survival but ultimately provides a candid, unapologetic account which is enough to draw strong emotions from the readers.